Tag Archives: Amy

You Couldn’t Make It Up

Whilst telling the truth is important when other people are relying on you to do so, it has always seemed to me to amount to a failure of imagination when they aren’t. Keen followers of this blog will have spotted that some of the scenes are not true. There is, for instance, no such person in real life as Aubergine Small, the immense but benign deaf-mute who from time to time helps me and my friends when we are in the soup. He comes partly from my head but mainly he’s stolen from Ben Hur. Amy mocks Augustus Sly, my amanuensis, for thinking that she is a metaphor, but who knows which of them is right?

I have always been attracted to people who reinvent themselves. There are the women in history who impersonated men and joined the all-male armed forces, remaining undetected in spite of communal sleeping and washing. Then there are the people who made new identities for themselves, or maintained more than one identity at once, such as the Victorian men who had two households – both of apparent respectability, each ignorant of the other – and scuttled between them on Christmas Day. In at least one instance this has happened in my time, and to people that I know.

And then there’s Kim, Calamity Jane and Nurse Betty.

Often this was purely deceitful, or at any rate tactical, but in many cases the people in question were not motivated by gain or personal advancement but, for private reasons and in the argot of today, ‘identified as’ something that they weren’t. And this brings us to Ms Rachel Dolezal.

Ms Dolezal, as I understand it, was born of white parents and brought up alongside black step-siblings. She identified strongly with black people, who she thought were treated badly in the United States, and she became active in racial politics through the NAACP. So far, as everyone would agree, so good. But she took it a step further. She maintained that she was herself black, and took steps to look as if she were. She laid claim to a slice of the victimhood points earned by being part of a racial minority. When her parents appeared on television to say that she was, in fact, white, she said that this was beside the point because she ‘identified as’ black.

That seems to me to be entirely understandable, and I can imagine circumstances in which it might have been admirable. The problem is the messy interaction of the personal and the political. As the story has unravelled in view of the entire World, the emphasis has been on her ‘personal issues’, and she has appeared to be mad. That has not done any favours for the political cause that she has championed.

It is a complex thing to bring off, at all levels. One thinks of Philip Roth’s unreadably smug novel, The Human Stain, where the same thing happens in reverse – a black man claims to be white – and we are nagged with the philosophical implications over nearly four hundred pages. She has failed to bring it off, and every further bit of jargon that she offers on television (the whole drama has been performed on television) the worse it gets. If we hadn’t got ourselves to a point where it is unacceptable to talk about race except in pieties, it might have been easier.

However much the whole thing has turned to shit, however, one cannot help thinking that deep down, if she wanted to be black, why shouldn’t she?

And that in turn brings us to the far less attractive story of Ms Emma Sulkowicz. Ms Sulkowicz, also an American, said that she had been raped by a man called Nungesser. She attempted to get him hounded out of her university. It then turned out that he hadn’t raped her at all: the whole thing was a fiction. Ms Sulkowicz’s response was, if I understand it right, that she identified as having been raped, so that her vindictive actions against Mr Nungesser were justified irrespective of the facts. In order to support her argument, she then made a short film of herself having sex with a tubby actor with a pixilated head. She said that this was Art and she challenged its viewers not to ‘objectify’ her as she heaved away.

It is currently rather fashionable to ‘identify’ with being raped whilst remaining untouched. One of the more hysterical pieces about the transsexual Ms Caitlyn Jenner (I forget the name of the writer but it was an American woman) was to the effect that Ms Jenner was not entitled to any part of the aggregate share of victimhood allowed to women – and God knows there is only so much victimhood to go round; it is an increasingly crowded market – for a number of reasons: including menstruation of course and also that, unlike Ms Jenner, the writer customarily walked down the street (one in New York, I believe) thinking that she might be raped.

In other words, being entitled to the considerable share of victimhood available for victims of rape has nothing to do with actually being violated, so long as you feel violated. That in turn explains the strange idea advanced by some that, unlike all other crimes, no rape is worse than another: all rapes are the same because they all partake of the same Platonic ideal irrespective of the harm done. And now, you don’t even need an actual rape at all. Identify as having been raped and you can get the victimhood points just the same.

Do I object to Ms Sulkowicz’s identifying as having been raped? Of course not, if it amuses her. But she should leave Mr Nungesser alone, and probably avoid making pornographic films without proper training. And whereas it has been a prudent rule since all this silliness started to avoid sex with Americans, there should now be a new one:

Don’t Even Think About Sex With Americans.

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Class for Powellites

“Did you win?”

“Win what?”

“Your Anthony Powell Lady Molly prize.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Augustus Sly told me.”

Augustus Sly told her. That was a turn-up. I thought that he thought that she was a metaphor and refused to talk to her.

“And when is he going to tell me about the bottoms in Vienna that I sent him to investigate?”

“Things carry on without your participation, you know. So, did you win?”

“No,” I said.

“Oh, I thought that Lady Molly as a gentleman detective was a winner. Who did, then?”

“That Robin Bynoe. I didn’t get even an honourable mention.”

“Oh, him. Was his any good?”

“Not bad. A bit wan. It entirely lacked the rousing finale that I had provided in mine, when Lady M cries, ‘One of you in this room is the murderer and tonight the member of the House of Lords leaving us is …’”

“Did you go to the presentation?”

“And the subtle interplay between Lady Molly and Brandreth, her chronicler, who is vain and stupid and doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”

“An original touch. So, did you go to the presentation?”

“I was in New York anyway,” I lied, “and I thought that they might change their minds at the last minute. Robin Bynoe read his winning story out loud in a modest voice and a badly-fitting suit.”

“Did you volunteer a few words of your own, causing outrage and a non-fatal medical incident on the part of the host?”

I looked at her sharply.

“Widmerpool, Le Bas,” she said.

“I know, I know,” I said. “Never apologise, never explain. No, I didn’t.”

She considered this.

“If you had volunteered a few words of your own, what would you have said?”

That was cunning. I was so impressed by her use of the conditional mood, which I believe does not come naturally to a Mandarin-speaker, whose verbs behave in a much more straightforward manner than ours, that I considered her question seriously.

“Any discussion about Lady Molly,” I said, “involves questions of class. She is a dowager marchioness, formerly gracing the pinnacles of the English social world, now living in a middling part of London with a barely middle-class second husband. They keep an open house, blind to social distinctions or those of dress, intellectual achievement or even species. The Anthony Powell Society has an online discussion list. It has contributors from around the world, and they occasionally alight on Lady Molly and wrestle with questions of class in England in the 1930s.”

Amy interrupted. “I write to that discussion list. I pretend to be Australian.”

She guffawed. I ignored her.

“Sometimes it seems to me that, in spite of the subtle insights the contributors to the online discussion list bring to most of the subjects they discuss, their approach to class can be heavy-handed. There is not a monolithic set of rules; Powell would have been the last to think that there was. I mused randomly about quite different class indicators – not whether class distinctions can be justified, just how they work – and I thought of four. Of course, there are many more.

“The most obvious is what we might call the Mitford one: the erection of subtle but irrational verbal rules that those inside comply with and outsiders fail: ‘looking glass’ not ‘mirror’, and so on. Lady Molly sails through this test instinctively: compliant but without judging.

“Two and three: on the one occasion that I met Prince Charles I couldn’t help noticing his shoes. They were well-made black oxfords, old beyond the point that anyone else would have thrown them out, but burnished to that sort of shine possible only for those with extensive availability of staff. Even the shreds of old leather hanging off them were shining. What class, I thought, what dandyism! And as I stared at them, royal platitudes playing about my ears, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Simpson…”

“Yellow man. Television…”

“No, Amy, Don: Hollywood royalty; he produced Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop with Jerry Bruckheimer in the Eighties. Mr Bruckheimer is still with us but Don Simpson sadly died in the early Nineties of a surfeit of cocaine and mullets. The reason I thought of him was that after he became Hollywood royalty he developed a dress style of his own. He would wear no trousers but Levi’s, and he would never wear a pair of Levi’s twice. At the end of the day he would throw them out, unless his staff could find a homeless person with sufficiently stocky legs on whom to bestow them. He undoubtedly thought that this was classy, and I agree that it was dandyism of a high order: the opposite of Prince Charles’s.

“And lastly, at something of a tangent, I thought of the Nobility of Failure, the concept whereby melancholy paralysis was traditionally prized among the Japanese upper classes. A samurai warrior would sit impassively in his tent, throwing away a winning position and gaining respect as a result – often of course posthumously.

“The samurai test of class would have had little appeal for Lady Molly. There were failures in South Kensington but not heroic ones. Curiously, though, it has a resonance for Stringham and Moreland, both of whom I think passed through the door there.

“As to the Prince Charles or Don Simpson question, obviously Lady Molly’s sympathies would have been with the Prince, but I don’t think that dandyism did much for her in principle. My point is that the Simpson model, which seems to be the default position for many commentators, possibly because it’s simple, works for some aristocrats, English and American alike, but it doesn’t work for Lady Molly. It doesn’t work for lots of people. It’s all more complicated than that. Of course this is why we need Anthony Powell to demonstrate it for us.”

“You could have said that to them. It’s in whole sentences and not abusive as regards any group of people.”

“Yes.”

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He’s Only Half Way There

“I think,” I said to Amy, “that I have got that Mr Putin half way up my chimney. Or as he would regard it, half way down.”

I couldn’t help regretting that there was no way to share my predicament instead with Augustus Sly, but he is in Vienna following up my neighbour Maria’s bottom. He would probably have had something sensible to offer whereas Amy was always more likely to shout.

“You got in your chimney how? I saw him at G20, on television.”

I started to tell her about my night terror and my fateful and clumsy use of the yulification ‘app’, which had had the effect of making a bad situation much worse.

“I know. I read this. But how you know it’s Putin?”

“I don’t, of course, and of course I saw him at the G20 too. That may have been a double. He wouldn’t have wanted to have a full and frank exchange of views with Angela Merkel himself – who would? – or with our own Mr Cameron, bless him, so he may have sent a stooge. Lenin would do that, expose someone else instead when there was any risk to his personal safety. It’s certainly someone Russian. I twisted the Cossack foot. From the depths of the chimney breast I heard a faint cry. They said, ‘Horse potty!’.”

“’Horse potty’?”

“It’s a mild but characteristic Russian ejaculation. Like ‘Goodness!’.”

“Did it sound like a little dictator, to judge by the vocal quality?”

“It was too faint to tell.”

“What say the better half? Her bedroom too.”

“She’s keen to put it to political advantage. She shouted up the chimney – and she has a penetrating voice. She said, ‘Withdraw your troops from Ukraine and we’ll let you out!’.”

“What he say?”

“He said ‘Chto?’.”

“’Chto?’?”

“What? It means ‘What?’. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear.”

“Cunning bastard.”

“Being a cunning bastard is one cornerstone of his successful career.”

Amy thought about this.

“I wouldn’t just say leave Ukraine. I’d say: free press, free elections, no more murders, no more lies and a substantial contribution to your extraction expenses taken from the budget for his enormous new dacha near Sochi.”

“It’s hard to ask for anything complicated if all he says is ‘Chto?’. The better half thought that if we did something unpleasant to a toe it might make him hear better.”

“Or,” said Amy with the subtlety for which the Chinese are famous, “you could tickle his sole.”

“I thought of that – but I don’t think I could bear to touch him. Also, I’m not sure that I want to descend to his level, even to help the people of Ukraine.”

There’s an issue,” said Amy. “Ends and means. We can debate this.”

“My friend Theo says,” I said, “that he is a strong leader holding his country together and that without him Russia would become dangerously balkanised.”

“Bollocks,” said Amy. “They said that about Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. Anyway, he is not holding anything together now. He’s in your chimney. Maybe we leave him there and see if Russia balkanised.”

“I wish it was that simple, Amy. Unfortunately he’s started to leak. He’s dribbling into the grate. It smells bad. The better half doesn’t like it. Even Bella turns her nose up, after some initial interest. We could go to the spare bedroom until either he empties or Russia balkanises itself, but that’s only a temporary solution.”

What would you have done? We decided to think it over.

Half an hour later Amy sent me a text:

PUTIN/SANTA HE GOT SACK AND PRESENTS IN CHIMNEY?

It was a pertinent question but one for which I had no answer. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t ask.

A few days went by. Russia didn’t get noticeably balkanised. Someone who looked like Putin continued to appear on state television and point out the hypocrisy of the West. They accuse Russia of political murder, he said, but what about the Northern Line? Who are you to point the finger? The leakage eventually fell away but the smell became appalling. The better half said, “You’ve got to do something.”

“What about independent Ukraine?” I said.

“Geopolitics is immensely complex,” she said, “and I want my bedroom back.”

I put a handkerchief round my hands and tugged at the leg. Nothing moved. There was another cry of ‘Horse Potty!’, but far weaker this time. Whoever was up there, Putin or not, ensacked or not, they were alive: but this was a condition whose continuation indefinitely could not be relied on.

I called round to see Aubergine Small. Strength and resourcefulness seemed to be called for. It crossed my mind to find out if The Jibjab Woman would help, but I didn’t know where she stood on a resurgent Russia and I didn’t want to offend her. Aubergine Small assessed the situation. He also twisted the leg, but could get no purchase. All he got was another weak cry of ‘Horse potty!’. Muttering to himself (or what would be muttering if he had the wherewithal; Aubergine Small is dumb and converses by the use of pre-printed cards), he took himself off and the next thing was that I heard him on the roof. He was prodding a bit of wire into the chimney from above. This time there was silence. He returned to the bedroom.

He produced a card:

SILENCE!

“What does that tell you?”

He demanded paper. This was a circumstance without a well-known phrase or saying.

IT IS THE DICTATOR WHO DIDN’T CRY ‘HORSE POTTY’ IN THE NIGHT.

Without his cards he can be quite prolix.

“You mean…”

YES. HE HAS A SACK AND IT’S ABOVE HIM. THIS IS MORE SERIOUS THAN I FEARED.

Aubergine Small threw himself at Mr Putin’s leg with a passion. For thirty minutes he tugged, but to no avail. Sweat on his brow, he faced me.

A. SMALL FAILS!

THERE’S ONLY ONE OPTION

“?”

He seized the pad.

NEWHAM COUNCIL!

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To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”

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A Second Bottom

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy.

“I love the autumn,” I said.

It was all around us, even though we were in Chinatown rather than some gently deciduous forest.

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy again, prodding absent-mindedly at a durian available for purchase at the side of the street. “Keats & Shelley.”

I had not seen Amy for too long, but it was apparent that her study of English literature had progressed from novels to the poets.

“Keats & Shelley my favourite English poet,” she said. “You know Blithe Spirit?”

I admitted that I did.

“I make a new translation, using iPhone translation ‘app’. You want to hear?”

She adopted a declamatory mode of delivery.

Hi Blithe Spirit!
Not a bird –
Small rough growth.

She looked at me expectantly.

“It’s very good,” I said. “An improvement, without a doubt, on Keats & Shelley’s rather limp phrasing. But what’s the small rough growth?”

“Wert,” she said. “The ‘app’ translates. ‘Bird thou never wert.’”

“I don’t think you need the small rough growth. I think you could lose the small rough growth.”

“No. ‘Wert’ is last word of the line. Emphasis. Very important. The lecturer said.”

“Trust me,” I said.

As soon as I’d said I knew it was a mistake. Like many women of my acquaintance Amy always knows best and trusting me simply doesn’t come in to it.

Her brow darkened.

“You’re probably right,” I said, and changed the subject.

Someone had offered me the chance to see the Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld before it opened and I invited Amy to come with me as I hadn’t seen her for too long. We talked instead about the Viennese Secession, about which, I am ashamed to record, Amy knew nothing and I knew little more.

This is no place to record my reactions to the extraordinary work by Egon Schiele on display at the Courtauld, except to say that you should see it. I shall stick to the point. Suddenly I found myself standing in front of a small watercolour: a female nude seen from behind. A shock of recognition coursed through me.

“It’s my neighbour’s bottom.”

Amy pretends to read this blog, but often she skims it. She had no idea what I was talking about.

“Your neighbour’s bottom,” she said. “How you know your neighbour’s bottom? Anyway, all European bottoms look the same. In China…”

I cut her short. I explained what I had inadvertently glimpsed from my window the other day.

“It’s exactly the same. It was only a moment, but I can’t be mistaken. It could be the very same woman.”

Amy, unsurprisingly, was sceptical.

“Characteristics of bottoms in the Austro-Hungarian Empire often remarked by scholars…”

“Of course. Of course. I’m not stupid. This goes beyond generalisation. Far beyond generalisation.”

I started to make little gestures at particular gluteal details, but these were lost on Amy, who had of course not seen the original.

“She have a name? Schiele’s woman?”

It was a good point. For reasons that will become apparent I will not identify the painting, but there was no personal name attached to it, nor did the catalogue give any further clues.

I was so shaken that my attention to the remaining rooms was perfunctory; I promised myself that I would come again. I asked if they had any postcards. They hadn’t been delivered yet, but I got permission to photograph the painting in question with my iPad. We left the gallery.

“I think strong drink is called for.”

We sat on the terrace by the river, one of the many delights of Somerset House. I had a miserly double whisky and Amy, who avoids alcohol, had an apple juice. There was no green tea, which of course is the best thing for those who have just sustained a shock.

“So,” she said. “What’s this nonsense? Egon Schiele’s woman not your neighbour. Egon Schiele’s woman very dead. Bottoms come, bottoms go. Dead bottoms decompose, new bottoms born. No big deal.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not just a resemblance, it’s uncanny. There is a connection. I have to follow it through.”

“And how,” said Amy, “are you going to do that? You going to [she actually said ‘gonna’ and I suspect that that is how, encouraged by her translation ‘app’, she thinks it’s spelt] take your photo to your neighbour and ask her take off her knickers? She send for police.”

“Good point, Amy. But I have special victim status, because of my mental frailty and my sexual encounter with the DJ in Shallow Assets. I’m in with the police.”

“Still not take off knickers. She think you a dirty old man. Mental frailty no help at all. Make it worse. She’s good Eastern European girl. She just happen to have typical bottom of Austro-Hungarian Empire. She never heard of Viennese Secession. She’s never heard of E. Schiele. She send you away with a flea. Good neighbourness in your street suffer terrible blow. Ijaz will have his face like a thunder cloud.”

I sighed.

“Everything you say is true, Amy. And you’re right: I couldn’t bear to upset Ijaz, whose good opinion I value…”

“So?”

“So, I thought you could come with me. You can vouch for me. You can be my representative if need be during the all-important but sensitive business of the comparison of the bottoms.”

Amy sat over her apple juice with her face like a thunder cloud. I ordered her another.

“Very busy,” she said. “Great Secret Miss not run itself.”

“Of course. Of course.”

“Maybe comparison of bottoms not necessary…”

“Maybe. Certainly.”

“If she has things to tell you; family history.”

“Absolutely. Amy, what would I do without you.”

“I haven’t said yes,” she said, but she had.

She grinned. It had become an adventure.

“You know Chapman’s Homer? What that mean? Crap.”

I thought of telling a Keats & Chapman story, by Flann O’Brian, but decided against.

“You want to see my bottom?”

“Always, Amy.”

“Dream on!”

She laughed coarsely.

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Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.

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Phrase Error

‘Oh, suck my nipple, please’ said Amy.

It was spring at Great Secret Miss. In its progress across the street and up the outside walls, the late-afternoon sun had just reached the windows, and His Highness Sultan Qaboos’ benign face, in the large print that I had presented to Amy when the place opened and which hung on the wall opposite a similar representation of our Queen, was dappled by the beams venturing (if pathetic fallacy is permissible in relation to a bunch of photons) past the more or less Oriental junk in the window. The Sultan’s khanja, which he was fingering characteristically, was still in shadow. In about twenty minutes, I knew, it too would be bathed in soft London light.

Amy and I were sitting in the front room drinking and talking about green tea. Not surprisingly she prefers the Chinese varieties and whilst I agree that there are some very fine green teas from China I don’t think that anything can touch Assam Green, which is grown, of course, in northern India. Assam Green has a taste that is full and deep and as satisfying as a good red wine. Unfortunately it is hard to get hold of and I have had to resort to Kusmi Tea, from Paris, which is by no means cheap, largely on account of the packaging. Darjeeling Green can be found more easily but it is not the same thing at all.

Other people were lounging or working in the room. Some minutes before, we had been brought a bowl of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, but they were so far untouched. Three musicians were deep in conversation and two poets were rolling on the floor tearing each other’s hair out. I would report their names to you but they escape me; they are quite well known, I believe – for poets.

For all these reasons Amy’s remark surprised me. It was a robust intrusion into a moment of deep peace – poets apart. I allowed one eyebrow to arch.

‘Surely not,’ I said.

Our relationship does not admit of such things.

Amy reached for her iPhone. She has assembled on it a database of her own frequently used phrases, Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin, and she checked this. She coloured.

‘I’m sorry. It was an error. I meant, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.’

Let me make it clear that I do not blame Apple’s software for the mistake. As so often it was probably a case of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’, or just Amy’s memory. Nevertheless one follows the conventions.

‘Bloody iPhone,’ I said, to spare her blushes.

‘Ah,’ said Amy.

I refilled or refreshed her teacup from the black iron pot, and we resumed our discussion about green tea.

I could not however help reflecting on what she had so innocently said. We all I suppose have our stock of frequently used phrases, although most of us do not hold them on our mobile phones. I sometimes regret that people use such phrases without considering the semantics of the component words. Politicians are particularly prone to this. At a more personal level I could not help musing on the circumstances in which Amy’s phrase had been required, and why, presumably after the event, she had jotted it down on her iPhone. I wondered on what private occasion she might have cried out, affectingly but erroneously, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.

I wondered to whom she had addressed the remark, whatever it was. Was it her husband in Kettering, if such a person existed at all: a matter of increasing doubt. Was it even one of the poets? They are passionate people, I’m told. As if to illustrate this, a clump of hair, with quite a big bit of scalp attached, flew across the room and landed in the bowl of the lovely crispy things that taste of rainwater. I recognised it as the forelock of one of the poets, a man, frequently and notoriously tossed but never before so radically. The names still escape me. They are both members of The Poetry Society, if that helps. I wondered what I thought about Amy engaged carnally with one – or indeed the other – of the poets. Was there the merest frisson of jealousy?

Not at all.

‘Do you see anything of Alfredo?’ I said.

What made me think of him?

‘Of course we agree,’ said Amy, ‘that add dead flowers a no-no.’

‘It is often a way to disguise that fact that the least tasty, and therefore cheapest, leaves has been used.’

‘Not often. I believe his rehabilitation as far progress as possible. Give him his own kefir. Off he goes.’

‘I hope he isn’t wasting it on Lesbia Firebrace, or the other one.’

Amy laid her hand decorously on my elbow.

Kefir is for the world,’ she said. ‘Even Lesbia Firebrace and the other one. We are only agents, you and I.’

‘Speaking of which,’ I said, and gestured vaguely towards the back rooms.

Amy summoned one of her girls, I took a couple of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, for, as they say in those advertisements on the television, the journey, and soon I was asleep, gripped by visions. They were unusually violent, but since this is not the sort of blog where we describe our dreams I won’t.

I emerged a better man. Amy was still there, proprietorially engaged.

‘And Augustus Sly?’ I said, affecting, as we like to do, she and I, that no time had passed at all. ‘Does he come around?’

‘Never. Never come here. He thinks Great Secret Miss is like magic toyshop. He thinks I am a metaphor.’

‘So you are, Amy.’

She laughed harshly.

‘I’ll have a fiver each way,’ she said.

‘No. Close but no.’

Out came the iPhone.

‘Sorry. I meant, ‘Speak for yourself, buster’.’

‘You have to laugh,’ I said.

‘Ha!’ she shouted.

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Restricted Access

Augustus Sly had some further questions for me, so we repaired to his rather dingy flat. Bella, our new dog, was with me and was lying on his drugget, rehearsing through the medium of REM sleep various encounters, remembered or imaginary, with sheep. Since her childhood, according to Battersea Home for Dogs, had been spent in London SW3, it’s probable that they were imagined.

(Imagine it. Brought up in a Crescent in Chelsea: the better half looked at the form when the Battersea person’s attention was distracted. Raised with certain expectations, with aspirations to wealth, or at least sophistication, and then turned unceremoniously over to adoption; taken to the far east. It’s better than a novel.)

‘I would like,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘to talk about the ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ sequence.

‘Is that really appropriate for your thesis?’ I said. ‘‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ is not available to casual visitors to the site. It is restricted access.’

Augustus Sly had evidently forgotten this. It did him, showing him to be a persistent follower of the blog, credit.

‘Yes, you have to sign on for it, when you become a Follower. There’s a special thing that you have to click. Terms and conditions apply.’

‘I had forgotten.’

‘People with ordinary unrestricted access don’t for example know Amy’s real name.’

‘I’d forgotten,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘The thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, seizing my advantage, ‘as it seems to me, is that Jesus is very small and the Rabbit is very big.’

‘Ah,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘I on the other hand thought that the point was that ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ was channeling and at the same time subtly subverting the Schopenhauer world view…’

‘Shopping?’ I said. ‘How?’

‘Very funny,’ said Augustus Sly mirthlessly, and put down his pencil.

‘I suppose I should ask,’ he said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘The other thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, ‘is that it’s rather smutty.’

‘I suppose I should ask,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘Not really obscene. A bit smutty, sometimes.’

‘In my dingy flat. As opposed to the chez vous celebrated in song and blog.’

‘Not its raison d’etre – but sometimes. ‘Dingy’,’ I added. ‘No, no.’

‘A student,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘That’s me. Student loans and so on.’

‘Druggets,’ I said.

‘Got it,’ Augustus Sly said.

Bella stirred in her sleep.

‘When I think of Schopenhauer,’ I said, ‘of whom to my shame I know little, I always think of those novels designated ‘S&F’, and I wonder if there was also a German philosopher called ‘Fuckenhauer’.’

Augustus Sly sighed.

‘But your question,’ I said, deserves an answer.’

The main building work on the chez nous celebrated in song and blog was complete by Christmas and we moved in. Since then however there has been a succession of little jobs that needed to be done, carpentry mainly, and our house has been shared, as it seems, by Ukrainian workmen. Every morning they hammer on the front door and I struggle down to let them in, since if I have a shower they will undoubtedly arrive just as I step into it. We call them Ukrainian but that is by no means certain. One of them may be Polish, although the real Polish builders say otherwise, and another claims allegiance to one of the Baltic states, but the songs that they sing are as far as I can tell Ukrainian, and that is good a test as any. Bella likes them, wherever they come from. It is irritating to have to take the long way round on one’s way to the sink, to avoid the bottom of a man who is crouched and addressing himself and his paint brush to the skirting board, but since he is addressing himself to my skirting board and at my request that is unfair.

‘And that,’ I said to Augustus Sly, ‘is why we’ve come to see you instead of the other way round. Bella may get bits of drugget on her lovely coat in your dingy flat but that is better than gloss paint, and I frankly have had the whole thing up to here. I’m fed up with the sight of them. And so is the better half.’

‘Can Bella talk?’ said Augustus Sly, picking up his pencil again. ‘In your blog?’

I didn’t tell Augustus Sly a further problem with the Ukrainians, since it is none of his business. We had noticed that one of them looked and smelled (a particular attraction for Bella) like an alcoholic. Occasionally, too, he would fail to turn up to work at all on account of some vague and mysterious illness. This meant that I had to spend the entire day in my dressing gown, a further irritant. Then we noticed that, like a former senior partner at one of my law firms, he became less coordinated after lunch. I assumed that he was supplying himself with wholesome eastern-European beer from the local Turkish supermarket, but it turned out, when I went one evening to gloat over my small but exciting collection of single malt whiskies, that he wasn’t.

What would have been wrong, I thought bitterly, with the Bells and the Morrisons Gin, the holiday grappa and the dodgy vermouth in its sticky bottle: all sitting there next to the almost empty bottle of Ledaig and all intact?

The better half became determined to help him. She is like that. It is, she said, after all an addiction: what the NHS is for.

‘Ah,’ he said, in Ukrainian, Polish or possibly Latvian, and with a sigh, ‘if only it were so simple.’

He explained that the HHS was restricted access: free at the point of delivery but only for those with gas bills.

And so it turned out.

‘Of course she doesn’t,’ I said. ‘She’s a dog.’

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Ciao Bella!

We have a new dog. She is called Bella. That is her name because her old owners delivered her to The Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats already answering to it. This is unlike the previous dog. He had been abandoned in the streets and was wandering namelessly. We gave him a new name because he didn’t like the one that Battersea (then catless) had allocated to him. Even so, we don’t know if she is Annabella or Isabella or even Belladonna or Donna Bella. Sometimes, for reasons that will not require explanation she is called ‘Bella Two-shits’.

I think that she is probably Isabella. I hope so. I had a nice girlfriend called Isabella once.

I thought that I should consult Alfredo, my double the assassin, on the point. When he came through the door Bella jumped up delightedly. Alfredo is a much more contemplative sort since he started his course of kefir with Amy, and he tells me that the nightmares engendered by a life in the assassination trade are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Nevertheless he can still turn on the Italian.

‘Bella! Bella! Ciao Bella! Molto bella!’ he said, capering in the customary bandy-legged style.

‘Woof,’ said Bella.

He appraised her.

‘Good capering,’ he said, ‘for a dog. Strong bandiness too.’

‘She’s a staffy,’ I said. ‘Bandiness is in the DNA.’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Alfredo. ‘Isabella it is. Speaking as an Italian.’

‘An ‘Italian’?’

‘Whatever.’

She is a friendly sort. She gets on well with my mother and she very much likes the Ukrainians who have come to do miscellaneous carpentry and seem to have become more or less permanent members of the establishment. They call her ‘Bellichka’. She likes it especially when they sing. At the start of the troubles in their homeland they sang gloomy nationalistic songs about the house but as spring has established itself more certainly they sing happy songs of renewal. Or so I suppose, since I don’t speak Ukrainian. It is difficult to imagine Mr Putin, the Perpetual President, singing at all, unless it is some dreadful broederbondy sing-song designed for all the KGB boys together. I know which I prefer, and on such simple judgments are political decisions reached.

Her predecessor was male. Because they are both staffies, we thought that it would be a good idea to get a bitch so as not to mix them up in our minds. Even so, she sometimes gets accidentally called by the old dog’s name and referred to as ‘he’. Nevertheless it is immediately apparent that they are very different. The old dog came with a range of neuroses, many of which he kept to the end. They indicated a much darker puppyhood than Bella seems to have had. He would get agitated by the appearance of a leather belt, particularly if taken slowly (as, entirely innocently, one does) from the trousers. He had an unnatural fear of sneezing on the part of men (though not women), sudden bangs (Guy Fawkes was always a torment), falling leaves and umbrellas. No doubt a veterinary Sherlock could reconstruct his troubled youth on the basis of these phobias, but what would be the point? Bella, on the other hand, seems well adjusted. Her only worry is to keep the family all together all the time and where she can see us.

She is also refreshingly ungreedy. We have adopted a reward principle involving dog-treats: three for two shits, if you must know. At first she was polite. Then she started declining to eat them, whilst making it clear that the offer of them was most welcome. As Mrs Thatcher would always say to me, it is not the treat that matters but the freedom – the choice – to accept or refuse the treat when it is offered. This morning we were eating, to the accompaniment of hammering noises and Ukrainian minstrelsy in the other room, our usual second breakfast of black bread, gherkins, smoked catfish and green tea: a virulent blend of the latter kindly brought back for me by Amy. (It was China, not Kettering.) I noticed that Bella was perched on the sofa displaying a quiet and polite interest in our food but showing no desire to share it. Any other dog, including our last, I thought, would have been up on the table with his teeth in my catfish as soon as my attention was distracted.

(I say ‘up on the table’ in order not to disturb the even flow of my narrative. In fact we were eating at our state-of-the-art ‘island’, stark modernist white and constructed of new Ideal Homes-approved wonder-material corian.)

Nevertheless the old dog had depths that his successor seems to lack. We used, as persistent readers will remember, to imagine the old dog talking to us. We used to mock his touching though demented delusion that he had written the Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner, and kept our little family afloat, financially, with the royalties. There seems little risk of Bella’s embarking on such lonely spiritual journeys. At the same time I think that she will probably be spared the anguish that drove the old dog to hurl himself repeatedly from the tops of kitchen dressers in the hope of catching a ceiling-suspended German sausage on the way down, or to attempt to assuage his alcoholism in the consolations of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

It takes, as a very wise man once said, all sorts to make a world.

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A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’

‘Smug.’

‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’

‘This?’

‘Yes.’

‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’

‘Ng?’

‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.

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